There are foods that surround you your entire life to the point that you take them for granted. I assumed everyone knew what rice balls were, and I assumed that they’d be readily available wherever I went. Maybe they wouldn’t be as good as the ones from Joe’s of Avenue U— a Sicilian restaurant way down in the depths of Gravesend, Brooklyn—but they’d still, at the very least, exist. Nope! Since moving out of New York City I’ve been able to find pizza and bagels that are identical (and sometimes better) to what I grew up with, but those rice balls? Fuggedaboudit.
A rice ball from Joe’s of Avenue U is not some delicate arancini of the sort you’d find at a fancy small plates restaurant. A rice ball from Joe’s is a behemoth: a softball-sized orb of creamy risotto stuffed with garlicky, sauce-simmered ground beef and sweet peas, breaded and deep-fried until a crisp golden brown, drenched in tomato sauce, dolloped with fresh ricotta, and drowned in shredded Pecorino. It is the sort of dish that finds a way to infiltrate your dreams, like a cheese-stuffed siren telling me to come back home.
The solution to a heartbreak like this, of course, is to figure out how to make my own version. I made them once, cursing like a sailor the entire time, vowing to never, ever to make them again. When you have a restaurant-sized kitchen with plenty of work space and an industrial deep-fryer, the rice balls of my dreams are easily attainable. When you have a small home kitchen, it is a production as laborious as hoisting a Giglio, or detailing a Camaro by hand. It’s impossible to truly enjoy a rice ball when you’re too exhausted to eat it. In situations like this, I’m left with two options: suck it up and deal, or figure out how to make a dish with all the same flavors and textures with a fraction of the work. As you can imagine, I am not a fan of option one.
It’s times like this that I lean on my husband who, aside from being a culinary genius, is ethnically Iowan and fluent in the language of casseroles. He suggested that, instead of the arduous process of forming stuffed rice balls, we should layer the rice and meat filling together in a baking dish, which we could then cut into rice squares and fry up in a pan. It worked! But ultimately we decided that breading and deep frying it was unnecessary. To make up for the absence of that crispy exterior crust, we just dumped a ton of grated Parmesan over the top, threw it under the broiler, and called it a day. And it was a damn, damn good day.
Italian Rice Ball Casserole
- 3 cups Arborio rice
- 2 ½ cups chicken stock
- 2 cups water
- 1 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese (Parmesan is good, too)
- 3 eggs, beaten
- 1 lb. lean ground beef
- 2 Tbsp. olive oil
- 5 large cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 small onion, minced
- 2 Tbsp. tomato paste
- 1 cup prepared marinara sauce
- 1 cup frozen peas
- 8 oz. shredded mozzarella
- 3/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
- Additional marinara sauce (about 3 cups, but it doesn’t need to be an exact measurement)
- Fresh ricotta (quality counts here, so if you can’t find a good one then just skip it)
Rinse the Arborio rice until the water runs clear, then put it in a rice cooker or pressure cooker with the water and chicken stock; cook according to package directions.
Brown the ground beef in a skillet over high heat, then remove to a bowl and drain the rendered fat out of the pan. Add the olive oil and saute the onions for about three minutes or so until translucent, then add the garlic and cook for another minute until fragrant. Add the tomato paste, marinara sauce, browned beef and peas, then reduce heat to medium and simmer for 10 minutes.
When your rice is ready, start preheating the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius).
Stir the Pecorino cheese into the hot rice and give it a taste, adding salt and pepper as you see fit. Spread out on a plate or baking sheet and pop it in the fridge to help it cool down faster—give it about five minutes. Once it’s cool, stir in the beaten eggs.
Grab a 9 x 13-inch casserole dish, and grease it up with a bit of olive oil. Press half the rice into the bottom of the pan and sprinkle with half the mozzarella. Add the meat sauce, spreading out evenly, sprinkle on the rest of the mozzarella, and then top with the remaining rice. Bake uncovered for 30 minutes.
Take the pan out of the oven and set the broiler to high. Cover the top with shredded Parmesan or Pecorino and broil for 3-5 minutes until brown. Allow to cool for five minutes before cutting into squares and serving with additional tomato sauce and a big dollop of fresh ricotta.